In this week’s Gospel, three enthusiastic people approach Jesus on the road to Jerusalem each expressing desire to become part of his movement. He surprises them…and us…with some rather unwelcoming language. To the first, Jesus tells him that life as a follower will be difficult as Jesus has no place to call home. To the second, Jesus says I won’t wait for you if you’d rather go to a funeral then go with me. To the third, Jesus expresses impatience with the man’s desire to bid farewell to his family.
These are hard teachings, and they don’t seem conducive to building a community devoted to the Kingdom of God. Still, to understand the totality of life under the Gospel, Jesus teaches us about commitment and single-mindedness as a way to faith.
In his most famous book, “Discipleship”, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote a lot about what he termed “cheap grace” and “costly grace”. For Bonhoeffer, Jesus call to discipleship demanded something from his followers, and that was what Bonhoeffer called single-minded obedience to Jesus. The call to follow Jesus was both an unconditional offer of love and forgiveness, and a command to loyalty at the same time. These are not contingent components, nor are they somehow sequential realities. Bonhoeffer’s interpretation of Jesus’ teachings was this; that the grace of God which grants us forgiveness is also the grace of God that humbles us into obedience to Jesus Christ. When we separate the grace that grants forgiveness and deny its call to obedience, this cheapens God’s grace. Similarly, when obedience to Christ overwhelms Christ’s call to forgive, grace is also cheapened
So, Jesus’ call to forgive and to obey are both acts which together show God’s love for us. Even though the call to discipleship can seem hard at times, because it is bound together with the call of forgiveness, it is never a heavy burden. Because the call to discipleship is bound to the call to love each other, it builds faith through the formation and reconciliation of relationships. Because the call to discipleship is one that asks for single-minded devotion to the Way of Jesus Christ, it promises freedom and it promises everlasting life.
So, when we hear the apparent sarcasm of Jesus in saying “Let the dead bury the dead”, let us also hear the clear promise in the corollary “Let the living love the living”; the promise that life and love, and not death, mark the path on the Way of Jesus Christ.
Devotions for Week of June 26, 2016
“This is my Father’s world. O let me not forget. That though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet.” (This is My Father’s World – 3rd stanza)
Dominating the news in the past weeks has been the response to yet another act of mass violence and terrorism, this time, committed at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. What’s even more troubling about this is less than two weeks later, our focus is not so much on the people who died, the trauma of those who survived, and the grief of an entire community. Instead our country and its people have turned their focus to gun control legislation and the divisive rhetoric that ensues from both sides.
I’m an advocate for stricter gun control legislation. The idea that guns can lawfully be procured by people with severe mental illness, a record of propensity for violence, or terrorist tendencies is appalling to me. Also appalling is the fact that high tech weapons of war, which should only be handled by highly trained military professionals in designated situations, can be lawfully acquired by an untrained private citizen.
No Constitutional right has ever been judged to be absolute, especially one which is in conflict with the preservation of life. Gun control that seeks to reduce our exposure to these most risky of situations is a fair abridgment of the 2nd Amendment, when you consider the value of life which hangs in the balance.
My thoughts on sensible gun control legislation do not come from any ideology, any political stance, or any enforcement of my rights as an American. My thoughts come only from the Gospel, and like Jesus, a sense of rejoicing in the wonder of God’s Holy Will. Our God is the author, redeemer and sanctifier of our lives. As a person of faith in this God, life and love are the most precious of all things, because God created all life, and the world that supports all life. God values life so much that God was willing to die for it. The entire world that God created weeps over death and destruction, over violence and hate, over terror and the taking of lives. These events are reminders that while God’s Will is ultimate, our world remains in sin until another day.
So, my heart goes out to the victims in Orlando, San Bernardino, Paris, etc. etc. etc. While the grief in those communities is acute, in a sense, we are all victims of this cycle of violence. I join with you under the cross of Jesus Christ and call for the end of suffering, the end of these episodes of death. I also ask you to pray for God’s Will of love and life to be our guide as we seek to heal the brokenness of our communities. If the way from the cross is not the way of life, then why are we taking it? God went to the cross to show us the way to life.
Shall we continue to follow on the way of death?
Neither life nor death shall ever from the Lord his children sever;
Unto them his grace he showeth and their sorrows all he knoweth.
(Children of the Heavenly Father – verse 3 ELW)
Happy Father’s Day!
When I was a small boy, even before my first day in Kindergarten, my parents became divorced and my father, for the most part, was estranged from me for the remainder of his life. I was blessed with strong grandparents who supported my single mother’s responsibility to raise two young children. While I had a nurturing home life, I remember often feeling slighted and ashamed when my schoolmates would warble about wonderful times being spent with their dads on weekends or on vacation. My family life was stable, but I was made to feel like I was missing out on something important to a young boy growing up.
Perhaps this is one of the reasons why I found myself attached to the Christian faith. I had a yearning to be in relationship with someone I could call father, someone who would never abandon their fatherly commitment to me and someone to whom I could turn when I was afraid or in trouble. I became encouraged by the characterization of God as father in the bible, and by the promises to which that image was attached – promises of eternal love, of presence in my life, of fearing no evil, of goodness and mercy flowing all the days of my life. I was reminded over and over again that I was baptized into this relationship with my Heavenly Father and received the promise that St. Paul wrote to the Galatians: “for in Christ, you are all children of God, by faith.
God promised to be a fathering presence in my life, and I can say that as more than just a platitude of faith. When I realized this longing for God the Father, I was brought together with a man who was both the presence of God and the presence of a true father in my life. I remember that man especially today: Pastor Theodore Wittrock.
I met Pastor Wittrock as a teenager when I began to attend Redeemer Lutheran Church in the Bronx, NYC. We built a relationship that lasted through young adulthood, marriage, and child-rearing. At each step, he filled in all the gaps, all the longing for an earthly father that I had been missing. I loved spending time with him, and even though he’s been hanging with the Heavenly Father for 14 years, not a day goes by where I don’t remember him – something he said, something he did, some love he shared, some person he cared for.
He encouraged me to consider preparing for ordained ministry, and I am about to honor that encouragement by becoming a Lutheran Pastor sometime in the next few months, and may be shepherding a parish in New York City, where Ted Wittrock saw a “little corner of paradise”. He remains my guide, my model for parish ministry, my friend and my dad. I feel his presence often, as much as I sense the presence of the Heavenly Father in all my days.
And so, I want to shout Happy Father’s Day, Ted…uh…Dad. And tell our Heavenly Father to do the same, OK?
Devotions for Week of June 19, 2016
As I'm sitting here in Madison Square Park in New York City, enjoying lunch and blogging on a coolish late spring day. There are hundreds of people about enjoying the company of friends, moving from place to place, standing on line at the Shake Shack, or just doing what New Yorkers do. As I enjoy this scene as only a New Yorker can, I also realize how vulnerable we all are. What would happen to this happy crowd if someone came upon us spraying assault weapon fire? What if what happened in Orlando last Sunday, happened right here in a busy New York park. What if?
A New Yorker knows the answer all too well. We're sitting in the shadow of the greatest single act of hatred, cowardice, terrorism and violence - the collapsing of two towers, and the death of thousands within minutes of the explosion of flying bombs. Yes - that happened almost 15 years ago, but nobody can easily forget the images of that day, and we still suffer the aftermath of our attempts to seek justice for the evil that was brought upon us.
I don't mean to compare the 9/11/2001 events with what happened in Orlando. The people who lived through the horror last Sunday, and those who have lost loved ones will suffer grief, loss and trauma every bit as much as those who experienced the terror of the World Trade Center, Pentagon and Shanksville PA bombings. Rather I want to link them together as well as all the other terrorist acts and mass shootings that have occurred in the intervening 15 years. And I want to stand with many who are saying ENOUGH!
And, maybe we should just build more walls.
As a Christian, I have to reflect faithfully on what it actually means to say ENOUGH! As a Christian who claims to be a disciple of Jesus Christ, that has to form my response to these terrible acts of violence that God's children perpetrate on God's children. As a theologian, how do I even begin to make sense of that statement? As a member of the Holy Christian Church, I have a responsibility to bear witness to Jesus Christ living and acting the the world. And if, to paraphrase theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the church is Christ at the very nature of its being, then I must stand for love and life in the face of hatred and death.
In response to the Orlando shootings, and in the pattern of responses to previous acts of mass violence, our protectionist instincts kick in and we want to build walls, in varying shapes, sizes and purposes. Some suggest building such a strong wall that would end any opportunity for refuge for those seeking to leave rampant violence in their homelands. Is that loving? Is that life-giving?
Others advocate for stricter gun control laws, attempting to reduce the proliferation of weapons that always seem to end up in the wrong hands, like those of the Orlando shooter. Incredibly, 41 states don't have waiting period requirements for purchasing guns in those states. Yes - let's build that wall for love and life! But let's not forget that it is just as easy to obtain weapons illegally as it is to do so legally. Hiding behind one wall, can obscure what is happening on its other side.
Another wall to be concerned about is the wall of idealism. This wall is particularly troubling because it is a double-wall, built by people on opposing sides of an issue, who find the wall as a way to protect themselves from having to understand those on the other side. The wall of idealism prevents people from loving each other, and from living life from the perspective of the other person. One person's response to mass violence is to advocate to ban weapons, and another responds by saying we need to protect our rights to have weapons to defend ourselves. Actually, these two people have more in common than they realize. A response that is based on love and life calls for these two people to work together toward a best common solution, apart from idealistic targets.
The saddest part of this is that no wall can be built to close us out of a world that is broken. I'm afraid that Orlando will not be the last act of mass violence, as we knew that the San Bernardino shootings would not be the last. All a faithful Christian can do is to stand as a witness for Jesus Christ, who came to us that we may have abundant life, and who calls us to love all - even our enemies.
So, I too say ENOUGH! Enough of violence, hatred, bigotry, protectionism. These are not acts that reflect Christ's call to bring love and life. But I also say ENOUGH to building walls. We are all Children of a living and loving God. We need no walls if that is true.
As a society, we spend a lot of time focused on the “in-crowd”, particularly who is IN that “in crowd” and who is OUT. The term “in-crowd” might be a little hard to define, and the qualifications to be named part of the “in-crowd” seem to change with regularity. Here’s a good definition I found on a contemporary English website: “a small group of people in any organization who are fashionable, popular or powerful, but who do not let many other people join them.”
In today’s Gospel story, Jesus is being hosted at a banquet given in the home of Simon, the Pharisee. Simon was part of the “in-crowd”, a member of the powerful religious elite who claimed that living righteously was what gave you an IN with God. Simon invited Jesus IN to his home, perhaps as an offer to join the “in-crowd”, and ever-so-curious about the young prophet and the stories he’d heard about miracles being performed all over the countryside. Jesus had gotten Simon’s attention, and for a moment was one of the “in-crowd”.
In the story an incredibly brave woman broke the boundary of the “in-crowd” and suddenly entered the house of this powerful Pharisee, and ran to the feet of Simon’s honored houseguest. The woman is clearly someone who is an OUT-sider. We’re told she was a sinful woman, without specificity, but Luke makes things very clear that she is someone who doesn’t belong to the “in-crowd”, at least as defined by those in power for the moment. She doesn’t live a righteous life, and therefore could not be part of the “in-crowd.”
One of the striking themes throughout Luke’s gospel is Jesus’ consistent welcoming IN of those whom society considers OUT. Jesus heals a Roman Centurion’s servant, and does the same to the son of a widow, welcomes a thief into the Kingdom of God, and forgives those who put him to death. Everything Jesus does in Luke’s gospel draws the focus of those who are IN, to those who are OUT, those who God loves every bit as much.
Simon the Pharisee invites Jesus IN, and is given a picture of what invitation really means. The unnamed woman, anoints Jesus’ feet with expensive oil, then wipes them with her hair and her tears, in a splendid display of love, devotion and gratitude for Jesus’ and his ministry of forgiveness. Jesus does not consider her an OUTsider and Simon is shown that he should not either.
One we invite Jesus into our home, we are no longer the host.
Perhaps you are feeling more like an OUTsider than someone from the “IN-crowd” these days. Please know that Jesus doesn’t play by the same rules that define the INS and the OUTS of the world. You are definitely part of Jesus’ heavenly “IN-crowd” and are called like this strong, brave, though unnamed woman, to give your love extravagantly in thanksgiving for God’s extravagant grace.
Devotions for Week of June 12, 2016
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Gustavus Adolphus Lutheran Church (GA) in New York City has been chosen as one of eight internship congregations to participate this year in a church-wide initiative designed to increase our understanding of Holy Scripture and most importantly, to cultivate our engagement with it. In partnership with The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, Vicar John Heidgerd will be working to develop innovative ways to deepen our faith formation and sense of discipleship for the sake of ourselves and our communities.